Settling the Score: Women Conductors Talk About the Slow Road to Equality

US conductor Marin Alsop
Anthony Wallace/AFP via Getty Images

US conductor Marin Alsop, poses during an interview with AFP in Hong Kong on Feb. 20, 2019. 

When Marin Alsop was nine, she had a life-changing, lightning-strikes moment while watching Leonard Bernstein conduct in New York: That was what she wanted to do. "I never changed my mind, not for a single day," she says.

Fifty-three years later, Alsop is the music director of the Baltimore Symphony Orchestra, a role she's held since 2007, when she became the first woman to reach such a position with a major American orchestra. In 2002, she established the Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship for young women conductors.

"When I started [conducting], I assumed there were going to be a lot of women doing it pretty soon," says Alsop, the first-ever conductor to receive a MacArthur Fellowship. "Five years went by, and then ten, and I was like, 'Where is everybody?'"

In the U.S., women helm roughly four percent of the two dozen big-budget orchestras, reports The New York Times. Of the world's 50 busiest conductors in 2018, just three were women: Alsop, Mirga Gražinyt?-Tyla (music director of the City of Birmingham Symphony Orchestra) and JoAnn Falletta (music director of the Buffalo Philharmonic Orchestra and the Virginia Symphony Orchestra). There's also a disparity in what orchestras are playing: Of the 2,891 contemporary orchestral works performed in 2018, women wrote 12.8 percent of them. Just one woman, Clara Schumann, made the list of top-ten composers.

In 2013, Vasily Petrenko, director of the Oslo Philharmonic and the Royal Liverpool Philharmonic, said orchestras "react better when they have a man in front of them" and that "a cute girl on a podium means that musicians think about other things" (Petrenko later said he meant in Russia, his home country). In 2016, Yuri Temirkanov, Alsop's predecessor at Baltimore SO, said, "Yes, women can be conductors. I am not against them conducting. But I simply don't like it." A year later, conductor Mariss Jansons said, "...seeing a woman on the podium...well, let's just say it's not my cup of tea."

For Falletta, this tracks with stereotypes: an upset male conductor inspires an orchestra to practice more, to work harder, to be better, while an upset woman on the podium can somehow, some way, inspire something different. "It almost conveys the impression that the person is out of control, because of how we [as a society] view women's anger," she says.

At Juilliard, where she studied conducting with Jorge Mester in the 1970s, Falletta says these incongruities were part of the conversation. As the only woman in the class, she'd consider how she addressed an orchestra -- why she apologized when asking the oboe to play softer, say, or why she looked at her score instead of directly at a musician when offering a critique.

"Jorge helped me realize that as a conductor it wasn't really my right to ask for things, it was my responsibility," says Falletta. "This is the job. I had to make things better, and to make things better, I had to identify what needed to be changed and improved upon. And if I couldn't do that, I couldn't be in that position."

Others had feedback that spoke to conducting as a microcosm of a wider world where women are not yet seen as equals.

"In grad school, one of my professors -- who was really supportive -- said, 'You know, you're very talented. But you have three big strikes against you: you're young, you're female and you're Asian,'" says Carolyn Kuan, who took over as music director of the Hartford Symphony Orchestra in 2011 at 34. "And I remember saying, 'Well, at least one of those will change.'"

For the 2019-2020 season, the conversation around the gender imbalance is louder, thanks to the centennial anniversary of the Nineteenth Amendment, which granted women the right to vote. The New York Philharmonic, for its Project 19, commissioned 19 women to write 19 new pieces. The Los Angeles Philharmonic's upcoming season counts half of its 22 commissions from women. Alsop's Baltimore SO, too, is marking the moment with premieres from contemporary composers like Lera Auerbach and pieces from lesser-known pioneers like Florence Price.

Though the gender mix of conductors has remained relatively unchanged from 2006 to 2016, other milestones signal a slow turn toward progress. In 2019, Gražinyt?-Tyla made history as the first female conductor to sign a long-term exclusive contract with record label Deutsche Grammophon. Beginning in the 2019-2020 season, Karina Canellakis will be the first female chief conductor of any Dutch orchestra, when she takes over at the Netherlands Radio Philharmonic Orchestra; in her new post as chief conductor of the Antwerp Symphony Orchestra, Elim Chan is both the youngest and the first woman to hold the position. Research from the League of American Orchestras shows increasing racial and ethnic diversity in conducting. And on the list of most-played composers, women are outpacing men in moving higher in rankings.

Whether the momentum will stick remains to be seen. Throughout history, spikes in the number of women in composing and conducting have been commensurate with the absence of men during World War II (1939-1945) and Title IX of the Education Amendments (1972). "I think there's a danger in that having a female conductor is kind of a fashion, which then actually goes out of fashion again," says Ruth Reinhardt, a Taki Concordia Conducting Fellowship alum and one of Julliard's six female conducting graduates in the past decade, out of 21 students total. "I fear sometimes there won't be such a long-term investment."

This is the catch-22. For real change, there has to be visibility, and there has to be conversation, even though it can be frustrating for female conductors to get asked about equality for every single story (this one included). But does bringing up gender help or hurt women conductors, if women just want to be seen as equal?

"We're not a different breed," says Alondra de la Parra, music director of the Queensland Symphony Orchestra. "Conducting has to do with brain, ear, imagination, experience and personality. And all those are equal in women or men -- and are absolutely different from one person to the other."